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Soon after Georgia O'Keeffe arrived in South Carolina in the fall of 1915, she reached a critical juncture in the evolution of her art. Rejecting all her earlier work, she realized she could not "spend my life doing what had already been done," and she embarked on a series of abstract charcoal drawings. These pieces reveal her study of Japanese art and art nouveau, as well as the ideas of the Russian Wassily Kandinsky and the Americans Arthur Wesley Dow, Marsden Hartley, and Arthur Dove, though her drawings were also highly inventive. Eager for critical reaction, she sent some to her New York art school friend Anita Pollitzer. Although Pollitzer understood O'Keeffe's ambivalence about sharing her art with others, she also knew her friend wanted Alfred Stieglitz's approval more than that of anyone else. She took the drawings to Stieglitz's gallery 291 on January 1, 1916, the legendary photographer's fifty-second birthday. As Pollitzer excitedly reported, Stieglitz asked her to tell O'Keeffe that her drawings "were the purest, fairest, sincerest things that have entered 291 in a long while," adding, "I wouldn't mind showing them in one of these rooms one bit—perhaps I shall."
Buoyed by Stieglitz's praise—"it just made me ridiculously glad," she told Pollitzer —and frustrated with her current teaching position—"I was never so disgusted with such a lot of people"—O'Keeffe quit her job in South Carolina. After borrowing two hundred dollars, she returned to New York in March 1916 and enrolled in Dow's methods course at Columbia University Teachers College, a requirement if she was to assume the position she had been offered by West Texas State Normal College in Canyon, Texas, later that fall. While in New York, she renewed friendships, spent time with her beau Arthur Macmahon, and went to 291. Over the next two months, Stieglitz challenged and captivated O'Keeffe, as he did so many other visitors to his gallery. She was overwhelmed when she and Macmahon saw Hartley's April exhibition at 291 of forty large abstract paintings made in Germany, which she later described as "a brass band in a small closet." She was "startled" when Stieglitz lent her one of Hartley's earliest paintings, Dark Landscape (1909), to take home to study. And she was even more stunned and disconcerted when Stieglitz told her that he wanted to exhibit her drawings in May. O'Keeffe abruptly left New York on May 2 after learning that her fifty-two-year-old mother, Ida, who suffered from tuberculosis, had died in Charlottesville. She returned to New York in time to see her first exhibition, which Stieglitz opened at 291 on May 23, 1916, but left soon thereafter to teach, once again, at the University of Virginia summer school.
Dear Mr. Stieglitz—
Yesterday I had a long letter from little—big hearted Anita Pollitzer. She asked me if I had received the June number of 291 that she had written you to send me—
It came today and it pleases me so much that I must just write and tell you about it.
I am the young woman who was so glad to see John Marin make the world go crazy—You gave me a 291 number of Camera Work and I can't begin to tell you how much I've liked it—I always want it where I can see it in my room—I like it for things it makes me think of.
Mr. Stieglitz—I want to subscribe to 291 and I want numbers two and three if you have any left.
If you will send number four to—Arthur W. Macmahon—Columbia University, N.Y. —I will thank you—
Sincerely, Georgia O'Keeffe
Georgia O'Keeffe [Columbia, South Carolina] [early January 1916]
If you remember for a week—why you liked my charcoals that Anita Pollitzer showed you—and what they said to you—I would like to know if you want to tell me.
I don't mind asking—you can do as you please about answering.—Of course I know you will do as you please—
I make them—just to express myself—things I feel and want to say—haven't words for—You probably know without my saying it—that I ask because I wonder if I got over to anyone what I want to say.—
Alfred Stieglitz 291 Fifth Avenue, New York January 20, 1916
My dear Miss O'Keeffe:
What am I to say? It is impossible for me to put into words what I saw and felt in your drawings. As a matter of fact I would not make any attempt to do so. I might give you what I received from them if you and I were to meet and talk about life. Possibly then through such conversation I might make you feel what your drawings gave me.
I do want to tell you that they gave me much joy. They were a real surprise and above all I felt that they were a genuine expression of yourself. I do not know what you had in your mind while doing them. But I do feel that they have brought you closer to me. Much closer. If at all possible I would like to show them, but we will see about that. I do not quite know where I am at just at present. The future is rather hazy, but the present is very positive and very delightful.
With greetings, Cordially, Alfred Stieglitz
Georgia O'Keeffe [Columbia, South Carolina] [February 1, 1916]
I like what you write me—Maybe—I don't get exactly your meaning—but I like mine —like you liked your interpretation of my drawings.—
It was such a surprise to me that you saw them—and I am so glad they surprised you —that they gave you joy. I am glad I could give you once what 291 has given me many times.
You can't imagine how it all astonishes me.
I have been just trying to express myself—I just have to say things you know—Words and I—are not good friends at all except with some people—when I'm close to them and can feel as well as hear their response—I have to say it some way—Last year I went color mad—but I've almost hated to think of color since the fall went—I've been slaving on the violin—trying to make that talk—I wish I could tell you some of the things I've wanted to say as I felt them.
The drawings don't count—it's the life—that really counts—To say things that way may be a relief—It may be interesting to see how different people react to them.—I am glad they said something to you.—I think so much alone—work alone—am so much alone—but for letters—that I am not always sure that I'm thinking straight—It's great—I like it—The outdoors is wonderful—and I'm just now having time to think things I should have thought long ago—The uncertain feeling that—some of my ideas may be near insanity—adds to the fun of it—and the prospect of really talking to live human beings again—sometime in the future is great.—Hibernating in South Carolina is an experience that I would not advise anyone to miss—The place is of so little consequence—except for the outdoors—that one has a chance to give one's mind, time, and attention to anything one wishes.
I can't tell you how sorry I am that I can't talk to you—what I've been thinking surprises me so—has been such fun—at times has hurt too—that it would be great to tell you—
Some of the fields are green—very very green—almost unbelievably green against the dark of the pine woods—and it's warm—the air feels warm and soft—and lovely— I wonder if Marin's Woolworth has spring fever again this year—I hope it has—
Sincerely— Georgia O'Keeffe.
I put this in the envelope—stretched—and laughed—
It's so funny that I should just write you because I want to—I wonder if many people do.—
You see—I would go in and talk to you if I could—and I hate to be completely outdone by a little thing like distance—
Georgia O'Keeffe [En route from New York City to Charlottesville, Virginia] [May 3, 1916]
I am on the train on the way to Virginia—
I don't know why I have thought so often and so much about you at this particular time—but I have—I got a telegram this afternoon saying my mother is dead—
If you were here and asked me questions—about it—or about anything else—I would probably give very queer answers. I feel queer—I don't seem to know anything—
but—I do know that when I get there tomorrow morning—I must even forget she is dead—
It seems as though I must build—
I don't know anything now—I'll only know step by step as I come to it—You must not feel sorry for me—I am only going down because I can probably make things easier for some others—
—but I wish you would write me—not that you are sorry—or any of that truck—Just talk to me—
If you want to—Not if you don't want to.
Last Saturday morning when I waked up the first thing I saw was the Hartley—and it startled me—I was through with it all in a minute—I got up right quick and turned it to the wall. I have wanted to take it down to you every day since but didn't have time till today. Thank you so much for it.
I rode home on the bus after taking the picture in to you. It was a wonderful day—
Then the telegram was there—
Some way it still seems to be a wonderful day—
University, Va.—12:15 in the night—
Alfred Stieglitz [New York City] May 6, 1916
For two days I carried a letter in my pocket—a letter stamped & sealed ready to mail. Why did I finally tear it up? It was addressed to you. I wrote to you as soon as I had heard from you.
It seems impossible for me these days to find words for anything—perhaps because I'm dead myself. And words, just words, are so terrible. Rather by far a living aching silence.
Your mother.—Was she very close to you?—You to her?—I hope so for there can be nothing quite so wonderful. And if this was so, how you must suffer now. In silence. Heroically. —No one to know—not even self.
I have been on jury duty—still am—that's why I didn't see you when you returned the Hartley.—Had I known how to get at you in the city I would have written or phoned. Also to tell you why your drawings were not yet up on the walls. I didn't want them up while I had to be away so much. I wanted to hang them primarily for myself—for my own enjoyment. Jury call came unexpectedly.
It is a summer day today.—291 has been like a tomb all day—even the phone has been silent—without a sound.
Let me hear from you—If you are near trees send me some of their spirit. Trees & Water!—
291 sends you greetings.
Georgia O'Keeffe [New York City] [May 8, 1916]
I came back yesterday—Of course there is no reason why I should tell you—except that— I want to—
I've slept ever since I got here—except that I got up and ate once in awhile—and it seems as if I could go on sleeping always—
I feel as if I'll not want to go down to see you for a long time—but maybe I will—can't tell—.
If you put my things up let me know—I might like to see them first—and again I might not—I don't know—Morningside 5271 is my phone.
Georgia O'Keeffe [New York City] [May 21, 1916]
I am writing you because I am afraid to go to sleep—and after I've told someone I'll not be so much afraid—or at least—I hope I won't—
Last night I dreamed—A very bad dream about Mama—and I thought my hands were on her face. I know the shape of it so well because I've rubbed her head so much and felt her face so often—No, not lately—it's just something I've always known—
Her temples I can always feel with my thumb—
I would make my dream—but I know I couldn't stand it to stay in the same building with it overnight—
I went out to dinner—and—supper—I've talked and argued and laughed all day—I've been in a very good humor—I am sure no one would ever have imagined that I would be afraid to go to sleep tonight—I've had a very good time all day—
—isn't it absurd that I am afraid now.
I saw you at the Metropolitan this afternoon—You were looking at the Winslow Homer—I was looking at the people. You didn't turn.
You are a funny man. I put my hat on and got to my door one day this week to tell you something that seemed worse to me then—than my mother being gone—but I turned back and saw a picture I had made—and—I thought—No—So—the next day I went—when I had cooled off some—I didn't tell you—because—well—I didn't need to then—and anyway—I couldn't have told the others—too—The reason I say you are funny is because you seemed to be hunting around that day for something to bother you—You had even tried to get the doctor to find something wrong with you—
and I had so much that was real—that—why—my brain simply wouldn't work.
—I knew when I went down that I wasn't going to tell you but everything seemed so queer to me—I wondered why people laughed—I had caught myself stopping and looking at them two or three times when I heard them—wondering how it felt—how it would be to feel like that again—did they know the other things—I couldn't do anything so I went down to see you for curiosity—I wondered what you looked like—
I ate lunch with Anita the day before—the day I thought I had to tell someone and started to tell you—She seemed like such a pretty little girl—I couldn't tell her. When I saw you—you were trying to find something wrong with yourself—
You don't mind—if I tell you that every time I have thought of it since—I have laughed. It seems so funny—and I laugh too—at the way I stood around there—seeming about as stupid as people are made. I guess I enjoyed being stupid that morning—I frequently do.
After I left it quite amused me to think what a fool I am—
But I didn't care that day—
And this is another day.
291 is a very nice place—
Maybe I can sleep now—
Goodnight—thank you for letting me feel I can talk to you.
[May 28, 1916]
I wrote this last Sunday night and found it in my desk tonight.
I've been sick—tonsillitis—in bed—for four days—can't come to life—can't care about anything—
Living great? Why yes—
The emptiness of the space ahead is appalling—It seems so empty that I don't want to move into it—thinking of it makes me feel I cannot stand it—
But I know I can—only I hate to take the first step—
I'd almost rather just stay in bed and have tonsillitis.—
The space ahead is the summer and the winter—and the summer and the winter again as I have planned them—and it's all empty—
[June 3, 1916]
Here it is—
Written last Sunday night—and the Sunday before—I would tell you why I went down today but my head aches so I can't—
The part of me that the doctor can't get at is very much sicker than the rest of me—
Alfred Stieglitz [New York City] [June 8, 1916]
Here is a letter for you.—It came last night.
—So you have found your balance. And the cause absurd.—Isn't everything that brings about a balance of within with without usually an "absurdity"?
I wonder if you know who Leo Stein is. He saw your work this morning & it interested him immensely as it continues to interest me immensely.—
You said you were going to make a new drawing—Did you?—I'm curious to see it. Perhaps you've forgotten all about the intention—or momentary desire.
So you stood behind me as I was looking at the Winslow Homer!—Amusing. I never see the people when I'm at the Museum—nor do I see much of the pictures—Why do I go there?—I only go two or three times a year—& always come out full of resentment—conscious of only what might be so readily were there just a little less stupidity at the head of institutions like our Museum.
—It's young I know. That's why I hate to see it waste its opportunities.
Will you tell me about the sister.—
Hasn't the rain been penetratingly wet these two days?—
Georgia O'Keeffe [Charlottesville, Virginia] [June 22, 1916]
What's it like here?
Trees—oak trees—so big and dark and green that they almost smother me—
Early one morning—it was Sunday—I walked away from it because they smother me so—and I saw some smaller trees and bigger open spaces—fields white with daisies—mountains—
I used to think it beautiful—but it isn't now—
My work means meeting many people that I know—people who have known me as something very live—I didn't know how little alive I feel till in their many greetings this morning I felt what response was expected of me.
Of them all—there was only one I was glad to see—and he had the bad taste to bring his wife along this year—I've never seen her so don't know yet whether he is any good anymore or not—I think he said two children too.—
Excerpted from My Faraway One Copyright © 2011 by Sarah Greenough. Excerpted by permission of Yale University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted August 2, 2011
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